GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The first woman to serve as head of Guatemala’s Ministry of Education and president of that nation’s Supreme Court will be honored on the University of Florida campus this weekend.
Maria Luisa Beltranena de Padilla will come to UF May 15 to receive the Jon Mills Award, given each year to a person who has made significant contributions to relations between Florida and the Americas. The award will be given at this weekend’s Conference on Legal and Policy Issues in the Americas, an annual event organized by the Center for Governmental Responsibility at UF’s Levin College of Law.
Throughout her career, Beltranena has broken gender barriers in Guatemalan law and politics. The youngest of nine children, Beltranena was born into a family of prominent lawyers in a time when few Guatemalan women pursued legal careers.
“My father and my oldest brother were lawyers, but nobody thought much about a woman going into the profession,” she said.
When she entered law school herself, Beltranena was one of only two women in her class. She quickly rose through the ranks of academia, becoming dean of the law school at Rafael Landivar University in Guatemala City — the first female law school dean in the country.
In 1982, she became the first woman to sit on Guatemala’s Supreme Court.
After Beltranena presented Guatemala’s Congress with a report on the educational state of rural women, then-President Jorge Serrano asked her to accept a position as the nation’s minister of education.
During Beltranena’s term as education minister, Guatemala reformed rural education, giving small communities more control over their schools and requiring rural schoolteachers to give instruction in native languages as well as Spanish. Both reforms were intended to increase educational participation in rural areas, where girls often get little or no formal schooling.
“If you could just get girls to go to school at least through grammar school,” Beltranena said, “You could change the entire culture and economy of Guatemala for the better.”
In 1993, Beltranena left the Ministry of Education to serve a brief term as President of the Supreme Court.
“She is an extraordinary person,” said Levin College of Law Professor Michael Gordon, who nominated Beltranena for the Jon Mills Award. “Twenty years ago, Guatemala looked like one of the last places you would expect a woman to rise to such a prominent position in government.”
Beltranena has been working with UF on collaborative projects since 1979, when she established an exchange program to bring UF students to Guatemala. That program was suspended after less than a year, when revolution broke out in Nicaragua, but Beltranena continues to participate in conferences and other scholarly events at UF.
Beltranena will receive the Jon Mills Award in a ceremony at 4 p.m. May 15 at the UF Hilton Hotel and Conference Center. The event marks the beginning of the Conference on Legal and Policy Issues in the Americas, which runs May 15 through May 17. The conference will bring lawyers, scholars, and law enforcement officials from around the Western Hemisphere to UF to discuss the rule of law, alternate dispute resolution, and techniques for fighting terrorism. For more information on the conference, contact JoAnn Klein, director of development for the Center for Governmental Responsibility, at (352) 392-2237.
“This conference allows legal scholars and policy makers to compare and contrast the approaches different nations take toward problems that affect the entire Hemisphere,” said UF Law Dean Robert Jerry. “It is fitting that this year’s Jon Mills Award recipient would be someone who has contributed so much to the public life of her country and to the international exchange of ideas.”
The award is named for Dean Emeritus Jon Mills, director of the Center for Governmental Responsibility. Previous recipients of the award include Kenneth “Buddy” MacKay, former governor of Florida and special presidential envoy; Alejandro Ogarrio, president of the Mexican Bar Association; Miami attorney Raul Valdes-Fauli and Brazilian environmental lawyer Paolo Roberto Pereira de Souza.
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